As we enter a cost-of-living crisis, we are all feeling extra pressure in our pockets with difficult choices to be made on where our finances are most keenly needed. It can be a time of high stress, where the need to survive can over-ride supporting long-term wellness. However, with increasing pressure on the NHS, it is now more important than ever to focus on health and mental wellbeing to maintain optimal physical and cognitive function during this challenging period.
Often optimal health is considered to be reasonably costly, due to cheaper foods tending to be higher in sugar and ultra-processed ingredients, as well gym memberships and premium nutritional supplements, which can be expensive. However, good health does not have to cost the Earth, and this blog aims to provide tips on how to continue to support and optimise health whilst still watching the pennies.
It starts in the shop:
Although there are many different diets that have supporting research for optimal health, what is consistent among all of the most evidence-based ways of eating is a diet which is high in fibre from vegetables and (sometimes) fruit and includes healthy fats and lean protein. This should therefore be the focus of dietary decisions.
Eat local and seasonal – seasonal and local fruit and vegetables are much cheaper. For example, British apples are much cheaper than imported mangoes, and tomatoes are a lower price in August than in December. Many supermarkets will have offers on a number of vegetables at different times of the year so maximise on these, which will encourage dietary diversity too. If you are committed to organic, then organic veg box deliveries are often a more economical choice than buying organic from a supermarket and they also have a lower carbon footprint.
Organic/Non-Organic – If you need to switch from organic to non-organic, you can use a veg wash or apple cider vinegar in water to help remove pesticides. Also, you can choose the products that are most associated with being clean/fewer pesticides (clean 15) and avoiding those with the most pesticides (dirty dozen), see below. However, remember fresh wholefoods are still a better option than processed foods, so look at veg washing rather than avoiding them altogether.
Chose value produce
Vegetables such as onions, carrots, mushrooms and cabbage, are good options as they are low in cost but extremely high in many healthful nutrients including quercetin, beta carotene, beta glucans and sulforaphane. They can also be easily included in most dishes. One garlic clove, dried herbs or spices and ginger can contribute to your 5 a day (minimum) and can last quite a long time, so are a great way of giving a healthful boost to a meal.
Frozen fruit and vegetables can be a great way to avoid waste and have constant availability of products especially when the cupboard is getting bare. The freezing process also preserves levels of many nutrients.
Tinned vegetables, such as tomatoes, are economical, easy to use and can have an increased availability of some phytonutrients such as lycopene. The way in which some vegetables are preserved by canning is not always the most healthful as they may contain salt and sugar but can be a good staple to provide fibre in the diet.
Some supermarkets have “ugly” or “wonky” vegetables, which might not look as beautiful, but have the same nutrient quality and are often higher in certain phytonutrients as they have undergone more stress (which increases some phytonutrients).
If you consume meat and/or fish, then there are cheaper cuts or sources available, so have a look around and be open minded. Search for recipes that utilise these ingredients, which will increase dietary diversity and help you to step out of your comfort zone. It is also a good idea to opt for meat- free days to reduce cost, but which can also improve health by limiting red meat consumption, for example. It can be good practise to divide up meat into portions and freeze, which helps to reduce the amount you are consuming and help it to go further.
You can half the amount of meat in a meal and bulk it up with vegetarian protein sources such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils, or go the whole hog and swap to these in a meal. Pulses are a source of protein but are also high in fibre. Avoid heavily processed vegan meat alternatives. Other vegan sources of protein are nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh and quinoa.
Eggs are also a great source of protein and fat and are quite economical. Omelettes and frittatas are therefore a good way to obtain protein and of which you can add in a high variety of vegetables.
Low glycaemic load wholegrains can help to support energy production (particularly when consumed with lean protein and healthy fats) and to provide fibre. They are also low cost and can help add bulk to a meal. Choose wholegrains such as oats (porridge is an excellent low-cost breakfast) and brown rice, over processed or refined carbohydrates. You can also mix it up with quinoa or sweet potato.
In the kitchen
As mentioned, it is a great opportunity to experiment in the kitchen with different cuts and local/seasonal ingredients. You can also reduce waste and maximise the “output” of the weekly shop by:
- Batch Cooking – make a large batch of stews, casseroles, curries, etc and freeze in individual batches.
- Add bulk – include pulses, wholegrains, starchy vegetables (e.g., sweet potato, butternut squash, carrot) to help produce go further.
- Make soups – use slightly “old” vegetables left in the fridge or cupboard to make soups. Onion and celery can be a great base and then simmer any other vegetables in stock for 20-30 minutes. You can add pulses for extra protein and fibre plus tinned tomatoes to make it go further. This prevents waste of any vegetables that may otherwise be thrown away. Again, you can freeze in batches if needed.
Having a treat
If you like to treat yourself with a restaurant meal or takeaway every so often, reducing these may not be a problem for your physical health but may affect mental and emotional wellbeing. If you go once a week, then increase this to every 2 weeks or so on, thus halving your expenditure. Or, if this is now beyond your means, set aside an evening where there are no other distractions and enjoy a meal at home with friends or family – this can feel much more enjoyable than fast food in front of the television.
The benefits of exercise on your physical and mental wellbeing are undisputable. There is often an assumption that physical activity is a luxury with gym memberships, expensive equipment and clothing, or club subscriptions. However, there are multiple opportunities for low cost or free activities including:
- Go for walk – walking is low impact and available to everyone. Benefits of walking include weight management, improved mood, greater self-esteem, and protection for osteoporosis. If you can walk in a forest, do it! One study revealed that walking through forest areas decreased the negative moods of “depression-dejection”, “tension-anxiety”, “anger-hostility”, “fatigue”, and “confusion” and improved the participants’ positive mood of “vigour” compared with walking through city areas.1
- Running – it is important to have good quality trainers but running is a free cardiovascular workout and again has many positive benefits to fitness, mental wellbeing and bone density, to name a few. It should be noted that it is important to ensure you have enough basic fitness before running and to warm up and cool down sufficiently as it carries a greater risk of injury. Furthermore, intensive exercise of any sort can increase oxidative stress, and so a good diet and potential supplementation is useful. If you are keen to get involved but not sure how, there are many local running groups that are very cheap to join or sign up for a Park Run which is a free community event and widely available across the UK. Walking and running can also be an opportunity to get social by doing so with a friend or in a group. A sense of community and social connection has been shown to be essential for mental wellbeing.
- Work out at home – during the pandemic there was a rise in the availability of online fitness subscriptions and equipment systems, which helped to maintain activity and sociability during isolation, but are very expensive. There is a plethora of free workouts online, many of which do not require any equipment. If organised workouts are not your thing, simply doing squats, lunges, press-ups and sit-ups whilst waiting for the kettle to boil is a great way to get more movement into your day.
- Community sports clubs have subscriptions which are reasonable, so looking at local activities is a great way to increase activity and socialisation.
Looking after physical and biochemical health with exercise and diet is essential, but equally important is maintaining mental wellbeing. The cost-of-living crisis is likely to exacerbate poor mental health further, so it is essential to support cognitive function and aid relaxation as much as possible to build resilience. There are many ways in which you can support relaxation which are completely free.
- Meditation/mindfulness – this is one of the best ways to reduce tension and anxiety and to support a healthy mind. There are many free guided meditations available on YouTube if you need help getting started or prefer to be guided. Mindfulness-based stress reduction has small positive effects on depression, anxiety and psychological distress.2
- Breathing is completely free!! – breathing exercises have been shown to calm the sympathetic nervous system and shift towards the parasympathetic thereby adding relaxation. There are many breathing techniques available – concentrating on slowing breathing down and breathing into the belly, is most useful. One that is simple, easy to do and has been shown to reduce sympathetic activity, is 4/7 breathing.
- Breathe-in to the count of 4 through nose
- Breathe out for count of 7 through mouth
- This stimulates parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation response
- Repeat 12 times. Practice regularly twice per day.3
- Be Grateful – gratitude journals have been shown to help improve measures of stress and depression. One study showed that people asked to journal five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week were 25% happier than those who did not or journaled negative emotions.4
- Acts of kindness – one thing which has been strongly shown to improve our mood and wellbeing are acts of kindness. Practicing kindness also has a profound effect on our own mental & physiological health, helping us to become happier and compassionate towards others. Being kind to others has been known to help boost our own immune system, slow down ageing , elevate our self-esteem and improve blood pressure.4
- Cold exposure – hot to cold showering has been shown to reduce perceived stress, increase alertness and stimulate immunity. It is a very easy intervention to implement into your routine.5
The Nutrition Gap
We know diet, exercise and lifestyle are essential for maintaining optimal wellness but even so it is very difficult to obtain optimal levels of nutrients. Investigations carried out by Dr Paul Clayton identified the difference between the nutrients that the average population obtain from food and the levels required for optimum health. We call this difference the ‘nutrition gap.’ The gap is pertinent to overall health but also highly indicated when looking at immune function. The availability of nutrients will affect the ability of the immune system to respond to pathogenic invasions and for it to maintain a balanced approach between adequate response and excess inflammation.
Bruce Ames hypothesised that if you are depleted in just one nutrient, your body will go into a triage response where it will favour survival over long term health. This means critical metabolic functions, such as ATP (energy) production are prioritised, and the risks of early ageing and the development of chronic disease are then increased. He states that “A multivitamin and mineral supplement is one low-cost way to ensure intake of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of micronutrients throughout life.”
Even when considering budget, it is important to consider maintaining optimal levels of nutrients with a multivitamin and mineral, as well as including essential fats and supporting gut health to protect optimal health for the future.
- The cost-of-living crisis is a period of high stress and can have a significant impact on mental health. It is hence an important time to maintain optimal health, even when on a budget.
- Opting for local seasonal produce in the supermarket can help to reduce the price of healthy foods.
- In the kitchen, opt for batch cooking, making soups with leftovers, and next day lunches with leftovers.
- Increase beans and pulses as well as eggs over meat and fish to increase fibre, reduce red meat intake and lower cost.
- Obtain exercise by getting outside and walking or running. If the weather doesn’t help, then look at free online home workouts.
- Prioritise relaxation and mental wellbeing with free online guided meditations, breathing techniques, gratitude journals and experiment with cold showers to increase calmness, reduce stress and aid resilience.
- Choose a high quality multivitamin and mineral, omega 3 and probiotic. Cytoplan Wholefood Multi, Fish oil (high potency) and Acidophilus Plus, are great value products and are recommended.
- Song C, Ikei H, Park BJ, Lee J, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Psychological Benefits of Walking through Forest Areas. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(12). doi:10.3390/IJERPH15122804
- Lee JS, Joo EJ, Choi KS. Perceived Stress and Self-esteem Mediate the Effects of Work-related Stress on Depression. Stress and Health. 2013;29(1):75-81. doi:10.1002/SMI.2428
- Bohlmeijer E, Prenger R, Taal E, Cuijpers P. The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy on mental health of adults with a chronic medical disease: a meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res. 2010;68(6):539-544. doi:10.1016/J.JPSYCHORES.2009.10.005
- Esch T, Stefano GB. Endogenous reward mechanisms and their importance in stress reduction, exercise and the brain. Archives of Medical Science. 2010;6(3):447-455. doi:10.5114/aoms.2010.14269
- What are the Benefits of Cold Showers? | Wim Hof Method. Accessed May 25, 2022. https://www.wimhofmethod.com/benefits-of-cold-showers
Last updated on 6th June 2022 by cytoffice